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Cat paws, sometimes lovingly referred to as toe beans because of their jelly-bean-like appearance, are just as important as any other part of your cat’s body. Not only do they have interesting anatomy, but they are also responsible for a wide variety of daily tasks integral to your cat’s health and well-being. From absorbing shock and cushioning their falls to leaving their scent on their territory, cat paws make cats the unique, multifaceted little creatures we know.
Although cats sleep for about 12 to 16 hours a day, they still spend a lot of time using their paws, whether they are chasing a laser pointer or pawing at an insect they’ve spotted.1 Because of this consistent use, wear and tear is inevitable. Therefore, it is crucial for us as pet parents to know how to care for cat paws.
This article will examine the relationship between cats and their paws, provide a step-by-step guide to caring for cat paws, and outline some situations in which it is imperative to seek veterinary care for your cat’s paws. Read through the entire article for a deep dive into the world of cat paws or use the links below to jump to a section that catches your eye.
- The Anatomy Of Cat Paws
- What Do Cats Use Their Paws For?
- Why Is It Important To Care For Your Cat’s Paws?
- Cat Paw Care Guide
- When To Seek A Veterinarian For Your Cat’s Paws
- How To Care For Cat Paws: FAQs
- Final Notes
The Anatomy Of Cat Paws
In many ways, cats are more like humans than we think, and perhaps that’s why we love them so much. In terms of their paws, you might be surprised to know that, similar to humans, each cat also has a unique set of fingerprints. Just as our fingerprints can act as identification and signal our presence, cat paws can also divulge important information about a cat’s health and behavior.
A cat paw’s cute appearance and fun-to-squish texture may be unassuming, but it actually has a very intricate and delicate structure. A typical cat has four paws and 18 digits, with front paws having five digits each and back paws having four digits each. On the bottom of each digit is a digital pad and in the middle of the paw, somewhat similar to a human’s palm, is a larger metacarpal pad. These pads are soft and almost rubbery. Not only are they responsible for cushioning a cat’s fall, allowing them to jump down from impressive heights and protecting the bones, tendons, muscles, and ligaments inside, but they also provide traction when they run and shield them from extreme temperatures.2
Even more vital to their survival, paw pads can act as radars, detecting movement from surrounding environments no matter if it’s from predator or prey. If you look closely at your cat’s paws and arms, you may notice an extra little nub located by their wrists. This is actually a paw pad as well, and it is called the carpal pad. It has many of the same functions as a cat’s other paw pads, but it mainly focuses on traction, helping our feline friends from skidding when they halt to a stop.
Cats have a claw on each of their digits, and these claws are actually a part of the last bone in their digits. Made out of keratin, the same protein that comprises our nails, these claws form a sharp, curved point, allowing cats to hunt, climb, play, jump, and more. Covered by a thin layer of skin when not in use, a cat’s front claws can be extended and partially retracted with a motion similar to humans pointing their toes. This mechanism allows them to keep their nails sharp for hunting and self-defense, helping them be stealthy and effectively pounce on their prey when they want to.
The claw on their thumbs, or the claw attached to their shortest digit on the side of their front paws, is called the dewclaw. Unlike human thumbs, this digit isn’t exactly opposable, but it can still assist cats in getting a firmer grip on their prey or a tree they are climbing.
What Do Cats Use Their Paws For?
Cat paws are incredible multifunctional tools. Here are just some of the tasks they can be used for:
- Walking: If you’ve ever seen a cat walk, you know exactly how regal and graceful they look. It’s no wonder the platform fashion models walk on is called the catwalk; only a person as agile and lithe as a cat can properly strut on such a narrow runway. Cats are digitigrade walkers, walking on their toes with their heels never touching the ground. This gives them a proud look to their gait and allows them to move quickly in silence to hunt and avoid predators. Cats also take part in direct registering, a form of walking in which the back paw always falls in place of the front paw. Using this technique, they are more balanced and leave less tracks.
- Absorb shock: Cats may be small in size, but they are incredibly athletic. They can jump up to seven times their height and land skillfully without injury as well. Their paw pads, limb bones, and joints complement each other to buffer the impact and reduce the sound of landing.
- Leave their scent: There are scent glands in your cat’s paws called interdigital glands. When their claws are extended, these glands help your cat spread their unique pheromones. By marking their scent, cats will be able to know which areas are safe, communicate to other cats that this is their territory, avoid confrontations, and even signal to the opposite sex that they are ready to mate.
- Sweat: Unlike humans, cats do not have sweat glands all over their body. Most of their sweat glands are located in relatively hairless areas like the lip, the chin, and of course, the paw. Although cats are already really good at regulating their temperature due to their ancestors that lived in desert climates, sweating through their paws is a more immediate way of cooling themselves down. You may even see your cats leave behind damp pawprints on hot summer days.
Why Is It Important To Care For Your Cat’s Paws?
Cats use their paws for so many reasons, and even indoor cats that do not need to hunt rely on their paws to walk, run, jump, and play. As they live their day-to-day lives, their paws may have gotten dirty after getting out of the litter box or become rough if they step on areas cleaned by harsh household detergents. Just like our own hands and feet, it is important to take care of your feline friend’s paws. Healthy paws contribute a great deal to the overall health of your cat.
Cat paws also contain large amounts of nerve receptors and blood vessels, making them incredibly sensitive. They immediately signal your cat to any pressure or pain, and any damage such as a cut, burn, or puncture can be a distressing experience. By taking care of your cat’s paws, you can limit damage that is avoidable like wounds caused by overgrown nails. Knowing how your cat’s paws normally look and continuously monitoring them will allow you to know when it is necessary to get your cat veterinary help for their paws as well.
Cat Paw Care Guide
Here are some steps you can take to keep your cat’s paws healthy and strong.
1. Inspect your cat’s paws
The first step to caring for your cat’s paws is thoroughly inspecting them. Make sure that your cat is calm and comfortable and gently pick up each paw and check if there is anything that may be causing your cat discomfort. Are the nails too long? Are there any scratches or wounds? Is there anything lodged in between the digits or paw pads? Is the paw swollen or an irregular color?
Inspect your cat’s paws on at least a weekly basis, but if your cat is allowed outdoors on a leash, check to see if there is anything abnormal with their paws as soon as they return indoors. If you notice your cat limping or not putting pressure on a certain paw, it may also be a good idea to check their paws as well. Your cat will likely not cry or yowl even if they are hurt as they have learned to hide their pain as a survival tactic. They may even try to hide their paws from you in this case, so be sure to make them as relaxed as possible.
It’s also a good idea to start familiarizing your cat with you handling their paws at a young age. You can start holding or massaging their paws when they are kittens and rewarding them for their good behavior. This way they won’t be spooked if you need to inspect their paws, and it will also make trimming their nails much easier.
2. Clean your cat’s paws
The next step is to clean your cat’s paws. Use a damp cloth, preferably a lukewarm one close to your cat’s body temperature, to lightly wipe their paws. Focus on the paw pads but also wipe in between the toes. As it is a hard to reach spot even for cats who meticulously groom themselves for about 30 to 50 percent of their day, dirt may have accumulated there. If you use clumping litter, keep in mind that it is especially easy for your cat to get litter stuck on the fur around their paws.3
3. Trim your cat’s nails
This next step may be the most difficult one in the cat paw care guide, but there are ways to make this process easier for you and more comfortable for your cat. You never want to make nail trimming a stressful process for your cat, so have everything you need placed close by and make sure to do it when your cat is either very calm or tired from playing.
It is best to be in a small enclosed area when trimming your cat’s nails and use a pair of nail clippers especially made for cats that you’ve already familiarized your cat with. Either have your cat firmly in your lap with them facing away from you or choose another posture that you can have them secured in place.
Extend their nail by pushing lightly on their toes with your thumb and forefinger and quickly cut a small bit off of the tip of the nail. Do not try to cut too much at once as it could damage their quick, the pink part at the back of their nails that contains nerves and veins. If you do cut it accidentally, stop the bleeding with styptic powder.
4. Trim the excess fur around their paw if needed
If you have a long-haired cat like a Norwegian Forest cat or a Ragdoll, you may have to take some pet-friendly shears to trim the extra fur around their paws. This will help them when they are going to the bathroom. Their fur may pick up litter and get dirty from covering their business. It can also track dirt and hide other grime.
5. Moisturize your cat’s paws if needed
If you notice your cat has dry or cracked paws, you should moisturize them with an oil or balm that is pet-friendly and safe for them to lick. Olive oil can be a good moisturizer, but if you need something more heavy-duty, a vet may be able to help you find an alternative.
When To Seek A Veterinarian For Your Cat’s Paws
When you are inspecting your cat’s paws, if you notice any of these above conditions, alert your vet immediately as your cat may have suffered an injury or be in pain due to an underlying condition. Other accompanying signs to watch out for include lethargy, hiding, and inactivity.4
If you notice any weird lumps and bumps on your cat’s paw, get them checked out by a vet. They could be benign lumps such as cat warts or a malignant tumor. It’s always best to be sure, so your cat can be happy and healthy.
How To Care For Cat Paws: FAQs
Why do cats knead with their paws?
Cats knead for a variety of reasons, including to stretch, to mark their territory, to nurse, and to convey happiness. If your cat kneads on you, they may think of you as their mother as cats knead their mothers to stimulate the flow of milk. Either way, it is a way for your cat to show you affection.
Why do cats have six paw pads?
Some cats have an extra toe or even multiple extra toes; these cats are polydactyl, also known as Hemingway cats. This is a congenital physical anomaly, but does not harm the cat in any way. Polydactyl cats can have as many as nine toes on each paw.
Should I touch my cat’s paws?
Yes, you should touch your cat’s paws. In fact, you should start doing so at a young age, so they will be more receptive to paw examinations and claw trimming as they grow up.
There are many misconceptions about cat paws, with some thinking that there is no way for cats to not scratch up the furniture or attack humans when they are mad. This is not true, cats will never do anything out of spite and bad behaviors can always be trained away with patience and understanding. There is never a reason to declaw a cat. It is an incredibly cruel process that amputates the last bone of each digit. Cats that are subjected to declawing are put through intense stress and pain. They are often traumatized and stay in pain for the rest of their lives.
If you would like to learn more about cat paws and how to take care of them, Dutch is here to help. Whether you are wondering how to get your cat to behave during nail trimming or if you think there may be something wrong with your cat’s paws, Dutch licensed vets can help you and your cat from the comfort of your own home. With check-ins and follow-up appointments, your cat is bound to improve. We also treat cat allergies and manage cat nutrition. Get started with Dutch today.
Shoen, Sarah. "How Many Hours Do Cats Sleep?" Sleep Foundation, 20 Apr. 2022, https://www.sleepfoundation.org/animals-and-sleep/how-much-do-cats-sleep.
Vollmerhaus, B. and Roos, H. "[Principles of construction in the fore- and hindpaw of the domestic cat (Felis catus). 2. Articulations]." Anatomia Histologia Embryologia, Jun. 2000, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10916878/.
"Cats that Lick Too Much." Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, Cornell Feline Health Center, https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/cats-lick-too-much.
Flowers, Amy. "Cat Paw Care Tips: Nails, Pads, and More." WebMD, 28 Jun. 2021, https://pets.webmd.com/cats/guide/cat-paws.